When Peter* arrived in Australia he felt a wave of relief. He had fled the small African nation of Burundi and arrived on our shores in 2011 due to his home country’s civil unrest and volatile political environment. But Peter’s relief didn’t last long. “I decided to seek asylum in Australia,” he says. “It took me four years to get permanent residency as my protection visa was initially rejected. I ended up going to the high court to appeal the decision and eventually I was allowed to stay.”
Peter’s wife was in Burundi with their four children and was pregnant with their fifth when he left the country. “After four years being apart from my family and living by myself I felt stressed and depressed,” he says. In 2015, the situation in Burundi became particularly unstable and Peter’s wife and children fled to Rwanda. They arrived in Australia under a family reunification visa three months later.
“I am on a priority waiting list for social housing but there are no promises of when we will get a house."
Being given the right to stay permanently has alleviated some stress for Peter, but he is far from settled. “I’m safe, but I’m struggling,” he says. “When my wife and children arrived we were homeless so we stayed in crisis accommodation for one year.” The looming threat of homelessness bears heavily on Peter. “I am on a priority waiting list for social housing but there are no promises of when we will get a house,” he says. “My contract for the house we are in is up in May and I’m worried we will have no where to go.”
Prominent Australians, such as lawyer, refugee advocate and NSW Australian of the Year, Deng Thiak Adut, have brought attention to the lack of support given to refugees. But despite this, refugees do not receive greater benefits than other Australians in need.
Peter worked as an engineer in Burundi and is now employed part time at a Sydney metropolitan hospital. “I’m working in the emergency department, helping move patients,” he says. While he’d like to work full time, Peter says it is impossible given his current situation. “I have diabetes and it is not stabilised,” he says. “And when my wife arrived I had to drop the number of shifts I worked because it was such a massive change for her to live in Australia and my kids were traumatised too.”
I earn $900 a week from my work and once I pay for rent, bills, food and lessons for the children I have nothing left over ... I’m not saving anything. I’m just surviving.
Settling into an unfamiliar country, the legacy of trauma and holding the expectations of his whole family compound Peter’s sense of responsibility. “My wife doesn’t know how things work because she’s in a new system and she thinks everything should be easy,” he says. “But nothing is easy!”
Peter worries about his children. “My kids are lagging behind in class,” he says. “They need support to get back on track.” When his children first arrived in Australia, Peter says the focus was on psychosocial support and ensuring they felt safe. “Now they really need support for their education,” he says. Peter pays regularly for tuition “to improve their English and mathematics” but acknowledges that this is a financial stretch.
Research shows that children from refugee backgrounds are at risk of physical, mental, developmental and educational complications. Nonetheless, attending school and achieving academically is a high hope amongst many resettled refugee parents and their children.
“I earn $900 a week from my work and once I pay for rent, bills, food and lessons for the children I have nothing left over,” Peter says. “I’m not saving anything. I’m just surviving. Just this week I went to see if someone could help me with my bills or give me vouchers for food. We rely on donations because my income is not enough to support a family of seven.”
Life is safer for Peter and his family in Australia, but it is not simpler. “It’s not easy,” he says. “I’m struggling to settle in and get my kids settled. I don’t have peace in me now.” Despite his health concerns and worries about the future Peter says he is glad to be in Australia. “Even if I’m struggling I’m know people in Australia are on our side,” he says. “They are doing their best to help us. With their support, we will get there.”
*Name has been changed for privacy reasons.
If you or someone you know are in need of support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.
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All six episodes of Struggle Street series two are available to view on SBS On Demand.
Struggle Street series two is produced by KEO Films with funding support from Screen Australia and Film Victoria.